The other obstacle I encountered early on was easily remedied by changing the settings, but it did take me a full day to figure out what was wrong. While everything seemed to work just fine in Ableton, the MicroFreak and Pigments (when running in standalone mode) never seemed to be in tune with the guitar… or itself. Turns out the default bend ranges didn’t play nice with the micromovements of a guitar being fretted, and each synth had its own ideal setting. Learn something new every day, I suppose.
In general the Jamstik seemed to like soft synths better than hardware instruments, but I had little issue getting it to work with my Volca FM or Volca Keys. I even found a few patches on the FM that took on a new life when played like a guitar. Because there’s a 1/4 inch instrument jack, a TRS MIDI connector and a USB-C port on the Studio MIDI Guitar, you can actually play multiple instruments at once. Just for fun I fired up the beta of the Jamstik Creator app, connected the Volca FM and plugged into my guitar amp all at the same time. I won’t pretend the noise I made was truly musical, but it was fun to have the arpeggios ringing out of the FM while my computer tried to follow the bass notes as I strummed chords through a distortion pedal.
For this demo audio and MIDI data were recorded in Ableton using a Focusrite Scarlett 2i4 interface. The guitar’s audio signal was sent through one of Ableton’s builtin amp simulators. No additional processing was done to the MIDI, it was immediately captured as audio from a softsynth as it was being played. The samples crossfade between the raw guitar and the resulting synth track to show it was translated in real time — warts and all.
The Jamstik Creator plugin is one of the features the company is pushing pretty hard. It does double duty as both a virtual instrument and configuration utility. The app isn’t expected to leave beta until sometime in October, but even in its unfinished state it’s still basically a must-have. This is where you’ll adjust string sensitivity, turn MPE on and off, assign MIDI channels and you’ll even find a tuner here.
The instrument portion of it is decent enough. You’ll find some really solid sounds in there, like the ambient piano preset and some fairly convincing bass. The interface can be a little confusing at first glance, but once you figure out its quirks it’s easy to start designing your own sounds.
There are, however, some features I wish were included, like the ability to assign MIDI channels or disable MIDI entirely for individual strings. This would make the whole controlling multiple instruments thing a lot more useful. Then you send just the root notes to your bass synth and the high strings to plucky lead synth while strumming a chord progression. This is something you can do with the Fishman app, for example.
All these complaints are relatively minor, though, considering this is easily the best performing MIDI guitar I’ve used. The hex pickup at the bridge is fast and accurate when it comes to pitch tracking. Even hammer-ons, bends and slides are recognized with ease and rendered as faithfully as possible. It simply blows the Jammy out of the water on that front.
Hammer-ons and bends (at least once you’ve dialed in the right range) are particularly impressive here. You can play a VST of a guitar with this MIDI guitar and the results are surprisingly convincing. Slides can be a little messy. I tend to just avoid them, but with some practice and patience you can get usable results.
One thing to keep in mind: A synth is not a guitar. And the guitar was not designed with MIDI in mind. So keep your expectations in check. Massive X isn’t going to suddenly react like a guitar to your playing. And you should expect the occasional ghost note to be detected, especially if your playing is as sloppy as mine. And super fast picking doesn’t translate well, so you won’t be playing synthesized Slayer riffs. That being said, Black Sabbath is fair game. And I won’t lie: Playing “Supernaut” on a Moog put a ridiculously huge smile on my face.
For slowly played pads and simple melody lines the new Jamstik is not just usable, but actually pretty great. And, while I might not trust it to play a live gig (not that I did that even in the pre-COVID days), it’s definitely serviceable as a primary MIDI controller in a studio. You just might need to do a little tidying in post. (That said, turning down the string sensitivity in the Creator app did help clean up my MIDI data somewhat.)
The one thing it really can’t handle is drums. Now, you can play drums on the Jamstik. I just do not recommend it. At all. It’s a nightmare. MIDI guitars are pretty unforgiving if you’re sloppy. (Hello again :wave:) And sloppy playing can’t be easily covered up on a drum track. You could turn on some pretty aggressive quantization, but at that point you might as well program your drums manually. Honestly, you should probably just save yourself the hassle and get a pad controller.
So no, I’m not ditching my Push or my MPK Mini. But despite my initial skepticism I came away impressed. Where other guitar-style controllers feel like gimmicks that will inevitably end up collecting dust in a corner, I could actually see myself keeping the Jamstik Studio MIDI Guitar in easy reach. Heck, I might even consider taking it on vacation since it covers both my MIDI and guitar playing needs.
But — and this is a big ‘but’ — justifying spending $800 on this is hard. If you’ve already got a guitar laying around that you don’t mind making minor and temporary modifications to, the Fishman TriplePlay Connect will turn any guitar into a MIDI controller for $230. If you’d rather not risk leaving any adhesive residue on your precious instruments, and you absolutely must have a guitar MIDI controller, then this might be worth it.